Classical history is not exactly the first thing you think of when picturing Marbella, much less when asked to focus on the beach. Indeed, we tend to think of this entire region as created for the single purposes of rest, relaxation and modern-day hedonism, but in reality the southern coast of Andalucía has one of the richest histories in Europe.
Founded by the Phoenicians, Cádiz, an hour-and-a-half west of Marbella, is considered by many to be the oldest existing city in Europe, while many of history’s grand moments were played out in the region. Among these were the Battle of Monda, where Julius Caesar defeated the sons of Pompey, the rallying of his troops by Hannibal en route to Rome in the Punic Wars, and the many episodes of the Moorish conquest, the Christian Reconquest and the Napoleonic Wars, not to mention the Spanish Civil War.
With this in mind, then, it is perhaps not as surprising to discover that just behind the San Pedro beach lay some of the best-preserved late Roman ruins this side of Italy. Originally discovered when a swamp was drained in the early 1920s, the ruins consist of a Roman villa and an early Byzantine basilica. Sheltered by a stand of eucalyptus just a few metres behind the beach, the villa is a fine example of a luxurious Roman merchant’s home, complete with such luxuries as latrines, under floor heating and a private spa.
The property, whose floor plan and mosaic tiles are still clearly visible, stood on the edge of a prosperous coastal settlement dedicated to the production of garum, a Roman delicacy made from fish paste. Slightly newer (by around 200 years) is the little 6th century basilica that forms the finest remaining example of its kind in Europe. As the Roman Empire began to crumble southern Spain fell under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire, with its capital in Constantinople – modern-day Istanbul.
Another rarity is the beautifully preserved baptismal, the only one of its kind in Europe, which would have served generations of people in that distant past, before the tides of time enshrined the little church for solitary centuries. Reopened with vigour some years ago by a group of neighbours, the site has been cleared up, marked and promoted as a truly historic Marbella heritage. Though still rather unknown to tourists and many a local resident, this peaceful spot is often visited by schoolchildren on whose history curriculum it now appears.
With the full support of the Marbella Town, the Association of the Vega del Mar organises photo competitions, guided tours and also produces a range of attractively styled merchandise products to promote this rare historic treasure in the midst of a modern world.